On April 30, 1789, George Washington delivered his first inaugural address to a joint session of Congress, assembled in Federal Hall in the nation’s new capital, New York City. The newly-elected president delivered the speech in a deep, low voice that betrayed what one observer called “manifest embarrassment.” Washington had not sought the office of president and was humbled by the request to serve.
Aside from recommending constitutional amendments to satisfy citizens demanding a Bill of Rights, Washington confined his address to generalities. He closed by asking for a “divine blessing” on the American people and their elected representatives. In delivering his address, Washington went beyond the constitutional requirement to take an oath of office and thus established a precedent that has been followed since by every elected president.
Two weeks before his inauguration, Washington had made an emotional speech to the citizens of his hometown, Alexandria, Virginia. He expressed regret at leaving his Mount Vernon estate where he had retired, and stated: “no earthly consideration, short of a conviction of duty, could have prevailed upon me to depart from my resolution,’never more to take any share in transactions of a public nature.’” The reluctant leader served two terms in office.
- George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799 is an online collection of more than 65,000 documents (including correspondence, letterbooks, commonplace books, diaries, journals, financial account books, military records, reports, and notes). Search the collection by keyword or browse the letterbooks and financial papers by date. The Timeline and Essays provide context for the papers and serve as a means of viewing many of the most significant documents.
- Search A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875 on the term George Washington to retrieve documents highlighting Washington’s interaction with both the Continental Congress and the United States Congress.
- Search Today in History on George Washington to read a variety of features about the life of the first president, including his birthday and his experience at Valley Forge.
- Browse the Inauguration section of the collection “I Do Solemnly Swear…”: Presidential Inaugurations to learn more about events surrounding each inauguration since April 30, 1789.
- Search on George Washington in The James Madison Papers, 1723-1836 for correspondence between the two presidents. Similarly, The Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress yields correspondence between the two presidents, Jefferson’s notes on conversations with Washington, and much more.
- For more on presidential inaugurations, see the Today in History features for January 20 and March 4, as well as Inaugurations in American Memory, a feature presentation of the Teachers Page.